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Accidental nationalism


May 14, 2018

The country’s ruling elite and some sections of the population are in a fit of extreme anger at the way Washington has pushed a hard line on our diplomatic mission in Washington, restricting the movement of our diplomats and creating hurdles in the course of normal social and official operations. To these sections, the reciprocal riposte from Islamabad, introducing a broad range of limits on US diplomats in the country and withdrawal of various concessions granted to the embassy staff, is most befitting.

The anger and the joy of seeing the US getting the right end of the stick are justified. As always Washington has acted as a bully on the block, ignoring diplomatic, moral and public sensitivities in the wake of the fateful accident that killed a Pakistani citizen and triggered the present row. Legal proceedings in the wake of the accident have now placed the indulgent driver of the vehicle, an American defence and air attaché, in the legal dock as the Islamabad High Court has recommended his name be placed on the Exit Control List. As any middle ground shrank in the wake of this crisis, and Washington attempted to browbeat Islamabad into accepting its demands, the reaction from Islamabad makes perfect sense.

What does not make sense, however, is to believe that by responding in kind to Washington’s strong-arm tactics we have suddenly discovered the true path to national honour and dignity. Even while we are hearing words like ‘equal treatment’, ‘reciprocity’, ‘mutual respect’ with the speed of light followed by thunders of applause for our own response to the US State Department’s extravagant moves, the reality is that this crisis, like all similar or other crises involving spats with Washington, holds up a big mirror to us. And it is an ugly sight.

The list of withdrawn ‘facilities’ – talk of self-deceiving sophistry – from the US embassy and consulate staff that the Foreign Office has issued is a list of shame and disgrace. From getting mobiles without biometric verification to hiring and shifting property to running ‘safe houses’ loaded with radio and communication networks, US embassy officials had the kind of free lunch available to them that would make the British in colonial India go green with envy. Un-restricted movement, tinted glass vehicles, fake number plates, and – the mother of all dirty facilities – un-scanned cargo make Pakistan look like an informal Diego Garcia. All this is apart from the large (one of the largest in the world) CIA presence and humanitarian, development and other networks spread across the country whose staff has concessions that are unavailable to any other national including to us, the Pakistani citizens.

All these concessions by the way are neither ordained by the Vienna Conventions governing the rights and responsibilities of diplomats and emissaries nor are they reciprocal. No Pakistani emissary can even dream of running a safe house in the US, or get a communication setup that is not registered, or get through airports without getting scanned. Remember how Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi was subject to pat downs? Getting cargo into the US that has not been checked or approved by the relevant departments many time over? Forget it.

But the Americans had it all here and more. Who allowed them these ‘facilities’? What were governments (these are old facilities) and state institutions thinking when they approved opening national doors to the Americans without let, hindrance and filter? What do you think the Americans would bring into Pakistan in un-scanned cargo? Dog food? Cutlery? Of course the most sophisticated instruments possible to run an expansive ground-based digital and spying network. And why do you think they would have this cosmos of intelligence in Pakistan? To find out what journalists talk about in Islamabad’s coffee corners? Of course, to keep timely and deep tabs on our nuclear capability, among many other things.

This is not surprising. All countries do this. Americans do this more than others, perhaps because of the nature of their role in the world or perhaps because of their way of working. So there is nothing new in this jar as far as US actions are concerned. What is amazing is that the Americans had an official sanction (which we call facilities) from Islamabad to do this. We welcomed them as they spread their wings and enhanced and deepened the roots of their dicey network just like we allowed Blackwater to move in with its massive presence. Now that we are immersing ourselves in self-praise for ‘taking a stand’ we are being totally hollow and hypocritical. The real story is not that we have withdrawn these facilities from the Americans; the real story is that we had given these facilities to a power that has, like all big powers, a track record of using diplomatic covers to carry out undercover operations.

The most disconcerting aspect of the present spat is that we have learnt nothing from our past experiences and are happy finding refuge in another bout of accidental nationalism that is driven by events beyond our control and defined by momentary fits that alternate between anger and submission. In the immediate past, we have seen this accidental nationalism at work after the Salala and Angoor Ada attacks; after the OBL operation; during the Raymond Davis episode; and repeatedly after drone attacks (though we choose to be angry or quiet, depending on who is getting killed on our soil.) In all these events, we had the same cycle of ‘get them out of our hair’ to ‘let’s cool it’, leading to ‘back to normal concessionary behaviour’. We heard deafening roars of ‘you can’t do this to us’ to informal agreements struck in silence to ‘get on with life as before.’

In the more distant past, we see Ayub Khan having served the most vital cold-war objectives of Washington to discover national dignity rather late in the day. Ditto Ziaul Haq who, towards the end of his oppressive career as US pivot in South Asia, thought of creating ‘balance in engagement with Washington.’ General Pervez Musharraf has been different. He started off as a friend and continues to be a friend, and therefore is thriving. Benazir Bhutto lobbied in the US to re-enter national politics and Nawaz Sharif under domestic duress, Kargil or impending dislodgement from power, ran to Washington for audience. Asif Ali Zardari was fond of giving free advice to the Americans and had a love for one-on-one meetings without note-takers.

From Shaukat Aziz to Moeen Qureshi to a long list of our finance ministers and other important members of the ruling establishment, generations have been the voice of America in Pakistan. From settling families in the US to running businesses in the land of opportunity, the governors of Pakistan have been and continue to be diabolically bipolar in dealing with Washington. They dream of America, offer their services, allow this land to become Washington’s base of operations and then suddenly when an event wakes them up to the glory of independence and they start to sing the anthem of honour and dignity.

If this system had any honour or any dignity, it would have formed a commission on omission and commission spread over decades in allowing Americans free access to our inner sanctum. It would have asked for details of commitments that that we fulfilled for Washington and the rate at which we charged them for these tasks. However, rest assured, we won’t do that.

We would rather give out a press release, sounding so proper and dignified and honourable in our conduct and quoting conventions and best international practices – forgetting totally how self-incriminating we come across when we admit what all the US diplomats were allowed here and how Washington had always had these special passes from us in its back pocket. If the Americans have indulged themselves in our land on account of our concessions, compromises and weaknesses, the blame isn’t theirs. Any country would lap up these opportunities. The blame is with the culprits who sat in their easy chairs and signed on these concessions of shame in the present and in the past. Catch them. But that won’t happen. That is tough. That is where the truth is. That is where the crime is. And no one is interested in solving the real crime.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

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